Fighting The Good Fight

With arrows flying and swords clanking, Jet Li holds Out for a Hero

Director Zhang Yimou's spectacular period swordfest has turned me into a hot-eyed missionary--like some fevered librarian intent on bringing Harry Potter fans to Diana Wynne Jones. If you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, see Hero: It stars no petulant proto-feminist but has beauty, emotional complexity, and fluttering robes to spare. If you liked The Last Samurai, try Hero: It features no alienated white guy but plenty of monumental battles, pearls of "Asian wisdom," and gorgeous--if lethal--women. If you thrilled to the Kill Bills, check out Hero: It forgoes the cartoons but ups the fight ante with long shots of alarmingly tactile and skilled swordplay. If you swooned to Spiderman II, swing a line to Hero: It skips the literal masks but is as much if not more (complexly) concerned with civic duty and the morality of super power.

Sorry for the embedded sarcasm. I am genuinely requesting that you, dear movie review reader, go see a Jet Li movie. In which he speaks Mandarin. And floats around on wires. (I am not a big fan of flighty wire work, so you see that I have been impressed despite my bias.) The first time I saw Hero my eyes hurt from trying to take it all in. The second time I saw it my heart hurt, for the same reason. The third time I saw it, I spent too much time looking for crappy bits so that I would be prepared to defend the movie to those who might not appreciate it as I did--which is to say, my feeling for it has made me cringingly vulnerable.

Ah, well. Fire away.

Zhang's first salvo is a honey. "People give up their lives for many reasons," reads a scrolled preface, "for friendship, for love, for an ideal." The message ends: "In any war, there are heroes on both sides." Criminy. In any war? Tell that to Luke Skywalker!

The opening shots show thundering black horses and a carriage bringing a blank-faced man (Li) to a military stronghold of epic proportions (shades of Washington, D.C., these days). Through gate and checkpoint and throng of armored warriors the small figure continues, until he stands alone 100 paces before the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) in an empty black hall. The man, a small-time official called Nameless, has single-handedly killed three assassins who threatened the king. The king, a warrior leader with his eye fixed on expansion, names the man "hero." For the next 90 minutes, Zhang will sift through definitions of that label, trying to find one that makes sense.

The king invites Nameless to come within 20 paces of the throne, then 10 paces, asking for the story of the killings of assassins Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). There follows a series of flashbacks, or perhaps imaginings, as Nameless and the king negotiate the truth of what happened between Nameless and the three warriors. Each version of the story exposes much about its teller. If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because Hero covers some of the same ground as the 1999 film The Emperor and the Assassin, which in turn is based on legends around China's first Emperor (300 B.C.), the man who united a land of warring fiefdoms and began the construction of the Great Wall.

In Nameless's first telling, he fights Sky at an open-air teahouse dripping with rain, as a white-haired musician picks at his strings. They fight, Nameless says, within their minds; Zhang shows them eyes closed, bodies poised at opposite ends of the courtyard. And then he shows the fight they are picturing, in the glowing black and white of a gelatin silver print. Zhang cuts between the shimmery imagined scene, the musician's hands, raindrops, the closed eyelids of Sky and Nameless; meanwhile, the soundtrack mixes music, plopping rain, the fighters' exhalations, and the weapons' steely slide, clang and humming rebound. I've never seen (or heard) a fight sequence at once so gorgeous and unmistakably material--so aware of the weight and flow of things.

From there, Hero's fight scenes become progressively less and less physical--either they're quick (though increasingly not bloody), or suspended and ethereal. Why this is so is not explained until the last scenes, when the king deciphers the meaning behind a sample of Broken Sword's calligraphy, a rendering of the character "sword." With his explanation, the tripartite structure of the film--built on the three versions of Nameless's story--slides into focus: Each section is a step on the journey of the swordsman toward swordlessness. Truly, Hero is so tightly organized that the viewer may balk at its clockwork elegance. Each version sequence even wears a thematically significant color scheme. In the first sequence with Broken Sword and Snow, for instance, the revenge-mad red-robed lovers thump through narrow crimson halls as if through the fragile passageways of the heart.

Zhang and his movie are saved from stiff concept by the actors, who skillfully infuse airy themes with the swing and pull of human emotion. Wong Kar-Wai regular Leung emotes with such subtlety yet clarity that it seems he is opening up his face, gate after checkpoint, until there is nothing there but acceptance. Cheung conveys enough loss with one cry that the Uma Thurmans of the world should cut bait and run. Even Li movingly reveals the heat roiling under Nameless's stoicism, and the doubt that cools it.

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